Our parents got it right most of the time; they did the best they could with what they knew, but they stuffed-up badly when they told us to ‘act your age’. Apart from the fact that you can’t act (or feel) a number, ‘act your age’ is one of the worst bits of advice we’ve ever been given. This is one time when it’s imperative that you disobey your parents. STOP!
When you stop acting your age, you’ll help to retard the ageing process – and others will notice the difference, too.
One of the most-frequently quoted studies that demonstrated ageing can be retarded through changes in self-perception was conducted by Ellen Langer. In a nutshell, Langer found that, during a week’s retreat, the subjects of this seminal study (males 75 and older and in good health), were encouraged to think, look, act, and speak as if they were 20 years younger. Participants played music that was 20 years old, wore ID photos from that era, referred to their wives and children as if they were 20 years younger, and considered their careers to be in full swing. Compared to the control group who acted their ages, the make-believe group improved their manual dexterity and became more active and self-sufficient. Impartial judges who studied before and after photographs of the men observed that the faces of those who stopped acting their ages looked on average three years younger.
For too long, chronological age has been regarded as the most important determinant of age. This age-old stereotype is a hangover from ancient Greek society in which youth, beauty, and physical perfection were valued and the elderly were lampooned by poets and playwrights of that time as ugly, feeble, and worthy only of social rejection. Early Roman society, too, generally thought of old age as a time of lost opportunities and a time of mental and physical deterioration. In the middle ages, some Christian theologians viewed the decrepitude of old age as a divine punishment for Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden. Even Shakespeare (in The Passionate Pilgrim) said, ‘Age I do abhor thee; youth, I do adore thee’. According to what we see and hear in today’s media, we could be excused for concluding that old age doesn’t have much to offer.
Very few people die of something called ‘old age’. Inevitably, other things (medical conditions, accidents, etc.) intervene. What we now know is that there are economic and psychological factors that contribute to an earlier exit than is necessary. Those factors are lack of finance, lack of friends, and lack of purpose.
The eighteenth-century philosopher Jean Jaques Rousseau drew attention to what most of us have come to realise: wealth is not a question of having lots of money; it’s about having what we want. Most of us also agree with Mae West’s observation, ‘I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. And rich is better’. And research continues to show that money, by itself, does indeed buy weeks, months, even years of extra life. Money may not be able to buy love (if you agree with the Beatles) but it can buy a better life.
We’re never too old (or too young) to make use of the resources available to help us prepare for a future in which our anticipated financial needs are catered for. With the help of experts, we can add years to our lives and life to our years.
Friendships are deep relationships developed over time. Building and maintaining friendships takes time and effort. Aristotle agreed: he reckoned that one and a half bushels of salt needed to be consumed together before a friendship became solid. Aristotle divided friendships into three types – friendships for usefulness (those that will help us to get membership of an exclusive club), friendship for pleasure (those people who are fun to be around), and friendships of virtue (those true friendships in which we are valued for ourselves). True (virtuous) friendships do not evaluate us according to worldly criteria; it is the core self they are interested in.
Cultivating new friendships and maintaining existing ones across a wide variety of interest areas and ages must be a continuing part of our friendship-building strategy. More than 250 years ago, Samuel Johnson emphasised a similar message: ‘If man does not make new acquaintances as he advances through life, he will soon find himself alone’.
The French philosopher Albert Camu emphasised the need to find or create a purpose. And this purpose can be found in a wide variety of settings. Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl emphasised the importance of having something to look forward to – a reason to get up and keep going each day. But that special something need not be confined to lifechanging events. Purpose might be as simple as having a place of one’s own – a backyard shed, for example – to go to and come back from. For some people (males, in particular), the humble backyard shed can help to provide a purpose.
Septuagenarian Olaf Weyand summed up the need to have a purpose in life when he said: ‘…there shouldn’t be a day when you’re not doing something of interest to make life worthwhile. When I see all these old people – the same age as me – with bugger all to do and no interests, I feel so sorry for them. They are sitting in nursing homes, cogitating and waiting for God’. Everyone needs a reason to get up tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. We must pursue the passion, not the pension.
George Burns told us, ‘You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old’. So, if you’ve decided to stop acting your age, there’s an inexpensive addition to your behaviour guaranteed to assist your cause. All you need to do is to add spontaneity to your day – doing something just for the good feelings that it generates. Spontaneous acts could include random acts of kindness, hugging your life partner, flying a kite, visiting a long lost friend, or telling your kids you love them.
Spontaneity encourages you to lighten-up and enjoy the moment. Go on, give it a try. You’ve got nothing to lose and plenty to gain.
Neil Flanagan is a best-selling author and keynote and conference speaker. His new book BLINK! The Speed of Life (How to add years to your life and life to your years) is now in bookstores.
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